Navigating the shoals of ISO standards

By Barbara Reed

At a point when many were expecting to welcome in a successor to the foundation international record-keeping standard, ISO 15489, issued in 2001, Barbara Reed reflects on why it will be at least another 12 months before it will be published. Barbara, a founder, director and principal consultant at Australia’s Record-keeping Innovation, leads the Australian delegation to the international standards meetings.

As I write this for IDM, I am sitting in Beijing at the June 2015 annual ISO TC46/SC11 meeting. With lots of regret, I need to report that what we hoped would be a document approved for publication has been determined to require another round of editing and approval before its issue.

This new round will take another year to go through the process of revision, committee approval, committee voting, translation, country voting and publication.

It has been a long process to get us to this point, with more than 9 drafts produced with many of these going to international comment. The latest version received more than 100 pages of comments.

The good news to be found in this is the passionate international interest of the records community in obtaining a robust international standard. The downside of course, is that a document written for an international audience is bound to contain compromises that will not suit everyone, and thus invokes a degree of passionate response.

And so it is for the draft standard. At one level it is worth pondering what provokes the passion. A hard battle was fought on just this territory to obtain international agreement way back in 2001. That initial standard was a success.

Now it is a document widely referenced in professional arenas and of significance in individual jurisdictions. So, changing something that has become part of the record-keeping collective practice gets touchy. And the very nature of its adoption and its success, means that different countries are at different maturity levels in adoption – what is perceived to be changing horses half way through a race, is risky for some.

Why does it need to change?

All standards have to go through systematic and periodic reviews. It is the nature of the standards process. And there have been many calls for change over the years. An initial attempt about 10 years ago couldn’t get basic agreement – it was too soon to change.

Now, some read the initial ISO 15489 as guidance for the paper based world. Written in a time of transition between the paper and the digital, it is true that it retains a number of things that are vestiges of that world.

Socially, all organisations and individuals are now further into the digital transition, but by no means really there yet, so it seems updating the standard is a logical move.

The old 15489 served the record-keeping professionally very well.  It attempted to express things as concepts transcending format. Inevitably the profession can do better now, but let’s not be too harsh on the older version: it lasted well. It was accompanied by a Technical Report (in Australia part of the standard we adopted) which provided implementation advice.

The whole record-keeping standards environment has changed since the implementation advice was issued. A hot topic of discussion in Beijing was how to approach the implementation advice – should it be a ‘part 2’ as the current version has it, or should we refer out to other existing products such as the ISO 23081 Metadata series. This has yet to be settled: some is ISO politics; some is the necessary resourcing; more is about what priorities exist for what type of guidance is of greatest use by the international record-keeping community.

What is new or different?

The flavour of the new 15489 is tinged digital. It was written with that perspective in mind while trying not to disempower the paper or hybrid environments.

From an Australian perspective, there is not too much that will come as new. Many of the components are already in Australian record-keeping practice. But here are a selection of things that have changed:

Introduces the notion of authoritative records: This is about acknowledging that records exist in all types of states, adequate, inadequate, complete, lacking etc. By acknowledging that there is a distinction between those that are regarded as authoritative (reliable, authentic, with integrity and useable) and others, record-keeping is staking a claim about the whole of recorded information as evidence of business and hopefully getting rid of the silly document/records distinction, much loved by IT people.

Reintroduction of appraisal: appraisal was left out of the 2001 standard. It was deliberate. The concepts were all there – determine what records to create, and determine how long to retain them – but the naming of the process wasn’t, because the term we use in Australia – ‘appraisal’ – was resisted in its definition outside of traditional archival practice and Australia stuck its heels in and refused to go backwards. Now appraisal has been reintroduced, with no definition because that remains too confronting for many as yet, but with explanatory statements positioning it as a foundational records process.This is important for many reasons – having a core foundational practice, allowing continuity and adaptation of one of the age-old records practices, allowing possibilities for the repositioning and flexibility of implementation of core processes. But this is a much fought introduction of significant controversy in many countries and with continuing resistance from many who look at records only from an archival angle. My argument to them would be this is an empowering development suited to the digital future, rather than anything to the contrary. It opens opportunities for new practice. But controversial!

Introduction of records requirements: these are the requirements for the capture of evidence of business action. This links to the work already available in the international sphere in the sleeper guidance, yet very powerful statements, in ISO TR 26122, work process analysis.

Much reference to metadata: this new 15489 contains much enhanced reference to metadata for records. Digital records don’t exist without metadata, so it is a necessary expansion of content. Always referenced with ‘ for records’ attached to the word metadata, this is intended to acknowledge that there are heaps of metadata but what the record-keeping profession is primarily interested in is the metadata that is about record-keeping. And bringing this into the umbrella standard itself, provides a framework reference to the ISO 23081 series of standards which were developed after the original 15489.

Records control tools

Implicit in the previous ISO 15489 part 2 was the notion of core records control tools. Now this notion has been brought up into the part 1 standard.

Four records control tools have been explicitly identified: metadata schema for records; business classification schemes; access and permission rules; records disposition authorities.

Identifying access and permission rules as a core control tool for records is formalising something implicit in the old part 2. Record-keeping professionals need to document this level of control separately to any decisions embedded in a system.

And business classification schemes have been slightly refocussed too.  Clause 8.3 says: ‘Business classification schemes are primarily developed to link records to the context of their creation.

By mapping records requirements to a business classification scheme, processes for the appropriate management of records may be carried out.’ This formalises the notion that there can be many, many types of classification schemes for multiple purposes (e.g. for retrieval or for geo-location etc.) but this one is for records and it does a particular thing.

With luck innovative implementation may move record-keeping away from the somewhat rigid interpretation of previous articulations which seemed to reify the hierarchical, separate metadata schema that was used to ‘title files’.

The new standard recognises that records are created everywhere. Some very tough definitional wrangling was needed to clearly express this.

 It is a clear acknowledgement that things called EDRMS are not the only way to manage records. It is about the functionality, and whether things can be managed with the right controls – the controls now defined in this standard.

So is this standard perfect? Not by a long shot. It is what the international community can agree to at this point in time. It takes considerable steps towards a digital future.

What happens now?

Work now continues on getting the words right and ensuring that everyone in the international community is happy with the changes agreed at this meeting. And work now commences on part 2. Part 2 has proved a bit difficult to scope, with some wanting no part 2, some wanting an omnibus part 2, some wanting a part 2 that acts as a ‘map’ to other more detailed standards or guidance.

Agreed at this meeting is that two pieces of work will be started. One provides guidance on systems design and implementation, and the other will work on appraisal guidance. We don’t know yet what these will actually look like when drafted.

Both should exist at preliminary draft level by next April/May for further discussion/direction at the next face to face meeting, in Wellington, in 2016.

Meanwhile, much thanks need to be given to the hardy crew who continue to see this process through: in particular to the Project Leader Cassie Findlay (Aus) who brought together huge numbers of comments into coherent drafts, the patient and formidable Project Convenor, Hans Hofman (Netherlands) and the editorial committee of Joanna Smith (Canada, recently replaced by Sharon Smith), Don Rosen (USA), Raivo Ruusalepp (Estonia), Sylvie Dessolin-Baumann (France), Elizabeth Klett (Sweden) and me. A truly international collaboration.